Oct. 21, 2010

There will be some key Big 12 Conference battles over the weekend as No. 5 Oklahoma State heads to the Lone Star State to face a tough Texas squad and No. 7 Texas A&M, and the Cowgirls know exactly what will get them through the test that lies ahead - their defense.

OSU is riding a seven-game winning streak and a school-record 13-game unbeaten streak (12-0-1), and sits on top of the Big 12 standings with a 7-0-0 mark. The Cowgirls' defense leads the league with a 0.67 goals against average, and has shutout of half of OSU's opponents this season.

"Each year, we try to build the back forward," said head coach Colin Carmichael. "We try to put an emphasis on not only our defense, but team defending."

The defensive unit has definitely been an integral part of the squad's success over the last couple years, propelling the Cowgirls to Big 12 titles in 2008 and 2009. Last year's team set school records with 14 shutouts and a 0.65 goals against average, which led the league.

Junior Melinda Mercado (pictured above) and sophomore Carson Michalowski, both of whom have started every game of their careers, are prime reasons why OSU's defense has been so consistent. Mercado, an All-Big 12 First Team selection in 2009, was named the Big 12 Tournament Defensive MVP after leading the Cowgirls to last year's championship. The former OSU women's basketball player stands 5-10, and her athleticism is definitely her strength according to Carmichael.

"For such a tall kid, she moves very well," said Carmichael. "She's very coordinated, very agile, and sometimes when you get bigger kids they don't move around the field so well. She's a tremendously gifted athlete, and very, very competitive. She's developed the rest of her game since she's been here. She's better at coming forward and better at attacking set plays."

Michalowski, a Big 12 All-Newcomer Team selection in 2009, sets the tone for the backline.

"She's a kid that fights for everything and is very aggressive," said Carmichael. "She plays hard, hates to come off the field and hates losing. She has that competitive mentality that you look for in a center back. She's tremendous in the air and very rarely gets beat in the air.

"When you put those two together, you've got an aggressive, combative center back playing beside a really agile, mobile player. It seems to be a very good combination for them."

In addition to the strong backline, OSU goalkeeper AD Franch anchors the squad that is focused on not giving up easy or early goals.

"We wanted to start off stronger than we did last year in the back, not letting little goals in," said Michalowski. "As a group, we've defended a lot better. With AD in the back, her communication has really helped us. Even the forwards and the midfielders, they are starting the defense if they lose the ball, and that makes a huge difference to help us win it back and stay strong."

"As a whole, our team knew that defense was going to be one of our biggest strengths," said Mercado. "If you can keep a team from scoring, and we are struggling offensively, we only need that one goal."

Carmichael says that his team's distaste for losing especially stands out, when comparing this squad to OSU teams of the past.

"Even in training when we play practice games, they get after each other pretty good," said Carmichael. "That shines through when we play. I wouldn't necessarily say this was the most talented team we've had over the last three or four years, but I would say it is the toughest team to beat. I don't think there are too many teams that are going to roll over us simply because of our kids' mentality."

The Cowgirls will need that hate-to-lose mentality when they face Texas and Texas A&M in two pivotal Big 12 games this weekend. OSU can clinch a Big 12 regular season title with two victories, although the Cowgirls can finish no worse than third in the league standings.

"These are two very, very difficult games in our conference," said Carmichael. "We know the challenge ahead of us, but we'll prepare as we have for every weekend. The one thing we've talked about is that Texas A&M is a nationally-ranked team, but if we even slightly overlook Texas, they're going to beat us. We know how talented they are and they are always very good at home. Once we get through that game, then we'll focus on Texas A&M."

The Cowgirls take on the Longhorns on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. CT, while then head to College Station for a visit with the Aggies on Oct. 24 at 1:30 p.m. CT.

Here are five more key games to watch this weekend:

Thursday, October 21

No. 8 Virginia at No. 10 Florida State, 7 p.m. ET

The Cavaliers look to stretch their ACC winning streak to three games against the Seminoles, while FSU vies to return to the top of the league standings as the two Top 10 squads meet. Virginia is led by reigning ACC Player of the Week Meghan Lenczyk, who netted three goals last weekend and tops the team with 12 goals and 28 points. Tori Hunter and Janice Cayman share the FSU team scoring lead with 17 points apiece. Florida State is looking for its' first victory over the Cavaliers in program history as UVa leads the all-time series 15-0-3. The game will be televised live on SunSports.

No. 13 Illinois at No. 17 Ohio State, 6:30 p.m. ET

The Buckeyes will put their flawless Big Ten record on the line against the nationally-ranked Illini looks to spoil their perfect league start. Ohio State is riding a seven-game unbeaten streak and is off to its' best start in school history at 12-2-1. Freshman goalkeeper Rachel Middleman leads the conference with a 0.38 goals-against average and ranks third with an .861 save percentage and six shutouts. The Illini have posted at least 10 wins in 13 contests for the first time since 2004. Freshman forward Vanessa DiBernardo ranks second in the Big Ten with eight goals and 20 points. Ohio State leads the all-time series 7-6-0, including a 3-0 victory last year.

No. 15 UC Irvine at Long Beach State, 3 p.m. PT

The Anteaters take a 10-game winning streak and 13-game unbeaten streak to Long Beach State, which also boasts an unbeaten record (3-0-1) in the Big West Conference. UCI is 5-0-0 in league and has outscored conference foes 13-1, with three wins coming in double-overtime as the Anteaters are hoping to take one step closer to their first league title. The 49ers are riding a seven-game winning streak entering the contest and have posted three wins against nationally-ranked foes. UCI's Tanya Taylor paces the conference with 1.62 points per game, while LBSU's Nadia Link ranks third in the league with 1.0 points per game. UC Irvine leads the all-time series 8-5-3.

Friday, October 22

No. 20 UCLA at USC, 7 p.m. PT

This cross-town rivalry is always heated no where the Trojans and Bruins take the field, but Friday's match-up at the Los Angeles Coliseum is not one to be missed. The Women of Troy are hoping to attract a record-breaking crowd for the Pac-10 battle. The national attendance record for a non-NCAA Tournament game is 8,204. The USC-UCLA meeting at the Coliseum two years ago ranks second nationally at 7,804. At 2-2 in the league standings, the Bruins look to gain some ground behind Sydney Leroux, who leads the squad with nine goals. The Trojans are looking to get back on the winning track after going 1-3-1 in their last five matches. UCLA leads the series 19-3-1.

Sunday, October 24

No. 2 Portland at No. 11 Santa Clara, 12 p.m. PT

First place in the West Coast Conference could be on the line in a nationally-televised match-up on ESPNU if the Pilots defeat San Diego and the Broncos knock off Gonzaga on Friday. Each squad enters the weekend with a 3-0-0 mark in league action, and the two have combined to outscore conference foes 12-0 in the first two weeks of the league season. Portland goalkeeper Erin Dees ranks 11th in the nation with a 0.492 goals against average, while SCU's Bianca Henninger follows at 19th with a 0.583 GAA. The all-time series is very close with Santa Clara holding the 14-13-2 advantage, but Portland has won the last three meetings.

TV Schedule

Friday, October 22

No. 2 Portland at San Diego, 8 p.m. PT (Fox Soccer Channel)

Sunday, October 24

LSU at South Carolina, 1 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

No. 2 Portland at No. 11 Santa Clara, 12 p.m. PT (ESPNU)